Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Age of Endarkenment

"There is no greater sorrow than to be mindful of the happy time in misery."
- Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 5

My pensive Blue Cat seemed sad today. There he sits, in his shady home, guarding the sole surviving strawberry plant, adjacent to the pink pelargonium that highlights his coloring so well. I would have thought he’d be happy there. Yet he seems to be brooding, perhaps over his long gone happy days on the covered patio, undisturbed by sprinklers and wandering wild beasts in the night. Now at night he witnesses skunks, European rats and the occasional coyote, as well as the feral cat that seems to live in the backyard, easily evading the old dog who couldn’t catch a cold in a snow storm. The night creatures cross the bridge where Blue Cat is stationed, ignoring his silent stare.

Perhaps Blue Cat confused – yet again – by the mysteries of the Monday trash schedule, and particularly how Monday holidays disrupt the predictable comings and goings of recycle trucks and garbage trucks. Our house is in the zip code but not in the incorporated limits of our suburban town. Sometimes, a Monday holiday is ignored and trash is whisked away with the usual efficiency on Monday. Other holidays, the pickup is delayed until Tuesday. Sometimes in weeks with a Monday holiday, the recycle people come on different days than the garbage people. Like the cat, I too, am mystified by the complexities of postmodern trash removal. Somewhere, a bureaucrat understands it all, but for the rest of us, it’s just another sign that we’re entering an Age of Endarkenment – where nobody understands anything and we’ll all wear Blue Cat’s perpetual puzzled stare.

Perhaps his ceramic thoughts chase sluggishly around inside his mostly hollow head, and he simply dreams of the day when he will purr like a real cat, emitting the soft hum in the frequency that can sooth even the most troubled mind.

Perhaps Blue Cat is just dizzy with the world’s spin, wondering why the people in China don’t fall off, while we bump along longing for a new day when men will once again believe in each other, and Monday trash day will always be on Mondays. Or at least on the Tuesday following a Monday holiday.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Remembering on Memorial Day

We stopped by Solana Succulents yesterday on our way from one brewery to the next. Later, K e-mailed the owner a photo of my short-lived succulent and he wrote back with it’s name. What a fitting exercise for Memorial Day: naming the dead plant. The succulent was a trichodiadema bulbosum, also known as the African Bonsai.

But it’s not all about what’s gone on this lovely summer day. Both of my black-eyed Susan vines (Thunbergia) are in bloom on opposite sides of the same arbor. The softer colored one was identified as “Apricot Smoothie” when I got it as a one gallon pot a few years ago.

The original one was planted from seed – the only seed to survive from an attempt to start several around various arbors. It’s older but sparser because it receives less direct sun than it’s companion, and also because it’s water supply is more dependent on me where the apricot smoothie gets watered from an automatic line that waters every day.

Today is a day we remember those who are gone. In remembering plants lost from my garden, I am able to stop and remember people who are gone. Here is my favorite poem about how gardeners especially, can remember people we loved who are no longer with us:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
- Mary Elizabeth Frye, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep”

Friday, May 25, 2007

Straightforward Pathway

"Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost."
Dante, Inferno, Canto 01

Instead of losing my straightforward path in a dark forest, I’ve found my backyard shade replaced by a sunny path. The recent sudden fall of the latest branch from the old pine shade tree living at the top of the waterfall has changed the yard. While the old tree still stands, it looks more like a giant bonsai than a healthy shade tree. This was the third major break in the past few years, and it was the tallest of the remaining branches.

Here are after and before pictures, both taken in mid-morning. The puddle of morning shade, once sheltering the pond and the table behind it is now mostly in morning sun.

I’ve sown flower seed to fill the gap the falling branch made in the midst of the old vegetable garden. Four of the five tomato plants survived. When planting yesterday, I excavated the top of a branch as thick as my wrist that has embedded itself in the dirt. The guys who cut and moved the fallen branch cut it off and left the other end in the dirt - it’s in there pretty deep. It will remain there until I cultivate the entire plot next autumn.
This has given me a new sunny area for my mums. I’ve put two green glazed pots on sections of the stump, and planted several other mum cuttings around the base. There should be sufficient sun to set flowers. My Tollsron’s weeping juniper, planted almost 20 years ago from a 1 gallon pot (at left in picture), is getting ready to provide the most shade for this part of the yard. The ironic problem is that one of the only remaining branches on the old pine is still looming above the juniper. I have no doubt that the pine is slowly succumbing to some kind of stress (probably a combination of boring pests and drought), but I don’t have the heart to speed the process by cutting the last big branch. And until it falls, the juniper will be forced to live in the pine’s shadow.

I’m happily using the sink installed by the gardener’s spouse, complete with backboard I decorated with left over house paint and a stencil I made using some old wallpaper to add my thinking gardener’s Latin motto: I think, therefore I garden.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Slave to a Springtime passion for the earth

… become like me,
Slave to a Springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
- Robert Frost, Putting in the Seed

Yuppies are starting to retire. We were the first generation after the Wars and the Depression to enjoy what previously was only afforded to the very rich – the “privilege” of not having to worry about starving to death. The post-war prosperity enjoyed by our parents permitted them to indulge us. We’re the first generation for a long while to have leisure time left over from the struggle to survive.

My generation were spoiled children, fortunate and yet often discontented with our riches. The television shows I now watch are sponsored by ads for long term care insurance, and sixties movie-star sellouts hawking investment opportunities guaranteed to score us that 150‘ yacht when we retire in our late fifties. Many of us not interested in buying yachts or living behind the walls of gated senior communities, are discovering the contentment of gardening.

This week, I am putting the last of the seeds of Spring. Some tomatoes, planted impatiently too early in April, germinated despite the final chills of winter and are now ready to transplant to the garden. It’s gotten to the point when even I have to admit I have way too many tomatoes. And I planted rooted cuttings of mums and geraniums. Most of the sunflowers, directly sowed into chilly ground, failed to awaken. So my final “putting in the seed” will involve planting the last precious sunflower seeds.

Some end-of-Springtime rituals remind me that there is life after a professional career. I survived years of being a slave to The Man. And now I’ve got the leisure time to become a slave to a new passion - putting in seeds in Springtime.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lost and Found

"In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread./ Till thou return unto the ground; for thou/ Out of the ground wast taken; know thy birth,/ For dust thou art, and shalt to dust return."

I found a final victim of the falling tree: my newest succulent, who shall now forever remain nameless. It wasn’t until the tree guys finished cutting and hauling away the branches, that I found the remains of the plant – one small root. The plant itself must have been knocked from the pot and swept up with the pine tree debris. I’ve planted the tiny root somewhere, and it may resurrect someday. Or, it may be gone forever

I had to trim back some of the oldest, strongest and blackest bamboo – snapped by the falling branch, It was then that I discovered a surviving white chrysanthemum, one of the first I fell in love with: A Class 1 (irregular incurve) “Mt Shasta”. Now that it’s been rediscovered, I’ll water, feed and perhaps even root a cutting before it blooms this autumn.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Hope Immoderately Enjoyed

“Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords: but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged, must end in disappointment.”
- James Boswell, Boswell's Life of Johnson

This is the time of year I hope. I’ve planted all my summer vegetables: a dozen varieties of tomato, potatoes, leeks, blueberries, blackberries, peppers, several different summer squash, cucumbers, beans and peas. I imagine the pleasures of harvesting, cooking and eating my garden’s bounty. I already have recipes selected. The hope that something will go from seed to feed is easy for me to indulge in these still cool days of spring, before the hot dry winds arrive.

But this afternoon I got the lesson about how hope for my harvest is, apparently, a pleasure “immoderately” enjoyed. This morning, we woke to strong Santa Ana winds from the hot dry deserts to our east, rather than our seasonally cool and foggy winds from the ocean twenty miles to our west. This afternoon, a particularly long and prolonged gust of wind cracked the tallest remaining branch of the elderly pine that lives above the pond.

The branch fell and hangs there still, balanced precariously by a wrist-diameter branch that is cracked, but holding up the broken branch, balancing it upside down behind the waterfall. It took out my entire vegetable garden, smashing the arbor, the wire fences, the tomatoes, the peas, beans, and my hopes.

Boswell, quoting Johnson further, says: “If it be asked, what is the improper expectation which it is dangerous to indulge, experience will quickly answer, that it is such expectation as is dictated not by reason, but by desire…” Ibid.

My desires for delicious home-grown food have been thwarted. The tree that killed my desires will not remain to dash further hopes. I told the pine tree that was it. It dies now. I’ve watched it let go, branch by branch. It’s taken out previous arbors, it’s smashed into the waterfall and the pond, and taken out ornamental plants by the dozens. Despite surviving pine bore beetle and being permitted to dip its roots into the pond to survive drought, it still, ungratefully, drops branches.

Just last month, I finally cleared up the brush pile left over from the last major branch that broke and fell into the pond last autumn. Although the gardener’s faithful spouse pleads that I should blame the wind, not the tree, I’m past blaming. Something must pay for the loss of my baby vegetables, for the murder of my hopes. When the men with the big saws come to chop up and remove the fallen branch, the entire tree goes. Even the branch that supports the giant wind chimes – that even now ring solemnly, mocking my immoderate desires. The whole tree goes.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


"He who knows the most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the water, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Growing Old in My Garden

“It is not given to every man, when his life’s work is over, to grow old in a garden he has made, to lose in the ocean roll of the seasons little eddies of pain and sickness and weariness, to watch year after year green surging tides of spring and summer break at his feet in a foam of woodland flowers, and the garden is like a faithful retainer growing grey in its master’s service.”
Sir George Sitwell, “On the Making of Gardens” , Robert R. Godine, Boston, MA, 2003, page 115.(first published in 1909)

I’m not sure if it’s me or my garden that is working to death in the “master’s service.” If it’s me, it’s not such a bad way to grow old. This past weekend, I spotted the shy white wisteria, as usual the last of my wisteria to bloom. It purposefully bloomed last to assuage the last of winter’s pain and weariness.

I find that the lavender purple Japanese wisteria (W. floribunda), twines clockwise. Not only that, but the blooms generally fill the leafless plant, and leaves emerge as flowers begin to fall. My Japanese wisteria is my flamboyant leading lady.

This year, my 25-year-old Japanese wisteria, in mostly northern shade, was finished blooming long before taxes were due. And again this year, by the time the white bloomed, the lavender purple’s blooms (and our meager refund) were spent.

The white, Chinese wisteria (W. sinensis ‘Alba’) blooms are usually shorter, and the leaves generally open with or before flowers bloom. It’s also true that Chinese wisteria twines clockwise.

In the younger Chinese wisteria’s white blossoms began to peak out from beneath new leaves (compound pinnate), lime green leaves just within the past week. My Chinese wisteria is my shy, upstaged understudy.

The 8-year-old adolescent white Chinese wisteria lives on the other side of the house, in mostly morning sun.

Observing their similarities and differences, I see other advantages of growing old in one’s garden. I love Sitwell’s lyric description of the grateful rewards and contentment gardeners reap in their gardens, as we mark our dwindling seasons with increasing poignancy and sentiment. Age somehow connects me more with the Victorian gardeners of 100 years ago, or with the Eastern cultures where age is revered. Watching and chronicling my wisteria also connects me to the garden traditions of Italy, so beloved of the Victorians.

Although somewhat different in scale from the gardens of Italy, I am working to cultivate in my own backyard, an atmosphere of benign neglect, where mossy greenness slowly softens edges, where the crumbling ruins are burnished by age…

“But for him who may live to see it, there shall be a wilder beauty than any he has planned. Nature, like a shy wood-nymph, shall steal softly back on summer nights to the silent domain, shading with tenderest pencillings of brown and grey the ripened stone, scattering wood-violets in the grassy alleys, and wreathing in vine and ivy the trellised arbour, painting with cloudy crusts of crumbly gold the long balustrades, inlaying the cornices with lines of emerald moss, planting little ferns within the fountain basin and tiny patches of green velvet upon the Sea-God’s shoulder.” (ibid)

Planting annuals for the colorful, visual, big bang your garden gets before the heat and the drought set in, is like living paycheck-to-paycheck. It's like having to do your banking today – on the first of the month. I don’t have to stand in line at the bank today. Instead, I can admire the parts of my garden that will survive me into the future. Today, I was able to admire the less lush but enduring parts of my garden. I invest today to reap better long term benefits tomorrow. My garden will, I hope, age well.

“As the years pass by and no rude hand disturbs the traces of her presence, Nature becomes more daring. Flower-spangled tapestries of woven tendrils fall from the terrace, strange fleecy mottlings of silver-grey and saffron and orange and greeny-gold make the wall a medley more beautiful than broidered hangings…” (ibid)

Good gardens should be nurtured to outlive their gardener. After nature recycles me, I like to think my ghost will return to gently haunt the wisteria vines in my yard.